Develop More Flexible Leadership By Avoiding This One Trap

January 5, 2022

If there’s one mistake we see leaders falling into time and again, it’s the leadership TINA trap. And if you’re not working on this either individually or with the support of leadership coaching, then you’re missing an important trick.

Before I start, I feel duty bound to give a heads up. This blog ends with a pun so shamelessly dreadful, you may never be able to erase it from your brain. Consider yourself warned (or promised, depending on personal taste).

One really important insight from Immunity to Change (ITC) coaching is that the reason we often find it hard to accomplish the personal and professional change we need to become more effective leaders, is because we’re trapped by the assumptions we hold about leadership, ourselves, other people and the world around us.

Our assumptions keep our thinking smaller and less flexible than it might otherwise be. They limit what we are able to see and the number of perspectives we are able to grasp. And for leaders working in fast moving, complex, challenging environments, a lack of ability to see multiple perspectives is often lethally damaging.

Our assumptions also limit our ability to achieve our goals – both personal and professional.

Let’s say, to give an everyday example, that I want to drink less at social gatherings. But imagine if I also assume that people only invite me out because they expect me to be the life and soul of the party. Chances are I’ll internalise that assumption as a pressure on myself to perform and entertain people every time I go out. So of course I’m going to keep on drinking to ease my anxiety and oil the wheels of my sparkling repartee. My struggle isn’t really with alcohol – it’s with how I assume other people want me to behave. My assumption has made achieving my goal practically impossible. Worse still, by the end of the evening I’ll be thinking, ‘Damn, I let myself down again!’ and next time I’m at a party, with the same goal of drinking less, a significant part of me is going to expect to fail before I even try.

Leadership Coaching

In ITC coaching, we often use the image of someone having one foot on the gas (accelerator if you’re British!) and one foot on the brake. The foot on the gas is the goal we’re trying to move forward to achieve. The foot on the brake is the assumption that’s holding us back.

What’s difficult for most of us is that we’re generally only aware of the foot on the gas. We know what goal we want to achieve. We are generally unaware of the foot on the brake. We don’t see the assumptions we hold, and that’s what lends them their power. If we’re not aware that something is simply an assumption (which may or may not be true), then we’ll treat it as the truth. As Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey put it very clearly in their book Immunity to Change:

When we treat an assumption as if it is the absolute truth, we allow it to rule our actions. We allow it to shape everything we see. We don’t consider or explore any other possibilities, and so it continues to hold enormous power over us. That is why it is a Big Assumption. But if and when we are able to name the Big Assumptions underlying our immunities to change, we are able to consider the possibility that they may not actually be 100% true. (ITC @ Kindle locations 971–975)

As we learn that our assumptions aren’t 100% true, we also learn that we can safely risk behaving in new ways. We then have a fighting chance of achieving our personal and professional goals.

How do leaders become aware of their assumptions?

The question is: how do we become aware when we’re being limited by a not-100%-true assumption? If our assumptions are generally invisible to us, how on earth do we learn about them, and work to overcome them?

In Immunity to Change coaching, the coaching arc begins with a deep dive to uncover the assumptions that are blocking your ability to make the change you desire. ITC coaching has some great tools to help with this process, and for many clients that first ‘discovery’ session is a powerful and intriguing eye-opener. It also brings a sense of hope.

But what about in everyday life, when we’re not being coached? How do we spot our limiting assumptions there?

Here I think we can best detect our assumptions indirectly, by noticing their effects on us.

One telling effect of being held by an assumption is that it limits our freedom to be flexible and creative in how we respond and behave. Most often, we’ll either think that there’s only one possible course of action we could take; or we’ll see two, but they’ll be polar opposites, neither of them very attractive. For example, it’s not uncommon for a person in a position of leadership, facing a difficult colleague, to find themselves thinking either I’m going to have to be a door mat and let this person walk all over me, or I’m going to have to behave aggressively and have a huge fight with them. We call this kind of thinking the TINA trap. The false belief that There Is No Alternative.

The truth is, though, that in most situations there’s a much wider range of responses available to us. The fact that we might not be able to spot them immediately doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Two Leadership Questions

So, whenever I find myself experiencing the TINA trap, especially in a leadership situation, I’ve learned to pause for a beat and try to become open and curious, and ask myself, ‘OK – what must I be assuming that’s making me think There Is No Alternative – because surely there is?’

The second question I have learned to ask is ‘OK, given my assumption might not be true – what else might I do?’ I think the might is important. If I ask myself what I’m going to do, I find I think smaller, and stay more attached to my assumption. If I ask myself what I might do – in full awareness that I may not choose to act on the idea – then I become more expansive and creative, and less attached to my assumption.

If you really want to push this strategy, ask yourself ‘What else might I do?’ three times. This is definitely one of those contexts where generating more possibilities really helps. The more new and different possibilities you generate, the less power your assumption will continue to hold, because you are thinking your way past the assumption (even if you’re not ready yet to behave your way past the assumption as well).

So, when you’re finding it hard to make changes, consider that you’re likely being held back by a significant not-100%-true assumption. The sign that there’s a lurking assumption pulling your strings is when you feel TINA (There is No Alternative). But there undoubtedly will be. If you want to ease your way to making change, you’ll need to over-turn the assumption first, by recognising that it’s not100%-always-true. And it’s in those contexts where you discover that your assumption is not true, that you have a much easier possibility to make a change that moves you towards your goal.

So – one powerful and reliable technique for achieving lasting personal and professional change is: don’t think TINA – think TINA Turner.

(I warned you.)

Cru’s 100 word summary

When we have one foot on the gas (a goal we want to achieve) and one foot on the brake (an assumption we’re unaware of that’s holding us back), we often experience situations as if There Is No Alternative (TINA). Thinking TINA Turner reminds us to test out, and hopefully over-turn, our assumptions by trying out three alternative ideas of what we might do. This simple approach can help us:

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